Gilly Stretton-Knowles, 42, is the woman behind a huge fundraiser set up by ex-partner Leon which has raised more than £7,000 so Gilly and her children, Olivia, Sienna and Jack can enjoy one unforgettable trip together before she dies.
In 2019, Gilly underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy after receiving the devastating news that she had breast cancer. After her treatment ended in 2020 she carried on living life as normal, starting work as a teacher at Wimborne Primary School in Southsea.
However, two years later, in January, Gilly began to suffer with chronic back pain, fever and low blood pressure.
She visited her doctor about six or seven times explaining her symptoms but was continuously pushed away, and was told she was suffering with anxiety.
It was only after Gilly pushed for an MRI scan that doctors discovered something on her spine.
‘They kept telling me there was nothing wrong, you're probably suffering from anxiety,’ Gilly, from Fareham explains.
‘They saw something on my spine but said it was probably nothing to worry about and then they found something on my liver, which again they said was nothing to worry about.
‘But because I'm an ex-cancer patient they said they’ll scan the liver more closely and do an MRI.
‘That's when they picked something up on my spine just by accident. When I went in for results they said the breast cancer had spread to the bone and it's incurable.’
Today, Gilly is living her life to the fullest she possibly can with her diagnosis in mind - until her treatment stops working.
Her bucket list includes riding in a hot air balloon and taking her children around Europe and on educational trips.
But the ultimate trip of a lifetime, for Gilly and her three children, will be to Mexico. Gilly hopes the holiday will lock in memories for the rest of her children’s lives so they can enjoy an adventure they’ll never be able to have again with their mum.
However, before the launch of the fundraiser, a trip of this scale had been out of the question for financial reasons.
‘I’ve never had money,’ explains Gilly. ‘I want this to be memories for me and my three kids.
‘My eight-year-old doesn’t really know what’s going on, but my daughters do and I don’t want there to be any phones on this trip. It's a holiday of a lifetime that I'll never be able to do again.
‘I just want them to have lovely memories as a family together.’
Every week, Gilly receives treatment at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham.
Currently, doctors can’t give Gilly a prognosis for how long she has left, but as her health deteriorates, she’s eager to make the most of the time she has while she’s more stable - before her illness becomes too difficult to live with.
‘I’ve got my painkillers and that seems to control it so I’m really lucky,’ says Gilly.
‘But I don’t know what will happen from one day to the next.
‘The doctors have said they can’t give me a prognosis because nobody knows.
‘There’s new treatment coming out all the time.
‘[My doctor] says one day your body will stop and the treatment will stop working and that will be it.
‘It could be anywhere between three months and four years really.’
Gilly is currently looking at jetting her family off to Mexico in January 2023 for ‘many reasons’ but primarily because her health is likely to be the best it can be because her condition ‘isn’t going to get better’.
‘Some people are saying, why are you doing this now?’, says Gilly.
‘You could still be here in three years time.
‘It’s because my health is getting worse. It’s not going to get any better.
‘I'd rather know where I can have an adventure-packed holiday with the kids because there's an adventure park you can go to where you can swim in the caves and do ziplining and all these adventure things.
‘I've got to do it while I still can. In Mexico there’s lots to do for the kids there.
'We can go somewhere in Europe but the kids can do that anytime as their lives go on. The family can take them there as they get older.
‘It's got to be really special, really different and we want to swim with dolphins and explore a new culture. It's got to be special compared to other holidays we've done in the past.’
Jack’s dad, Leon Clarke, a builder, started up the fundraiser for Gilly and her family three weeks ago.
After realising the chances of him being able to give the cash himself were slim and seeing the success of other fundraisers for people in a similar position to Gilly – it was a no-brainer.
‘[Gilly] and the kids have never had a holiday, just them,’ he says.
‘It’s a great idea really. It’s somewhere she’s always wanted to go.
‘She’s a fantastic mum. I felt I had to do something.
‘I can't afford to just chuck money around left right and centre.
‘It's already made quite a bit of money so it shows the support that she has from family.’
Leon’s fundraiser for Gilly has smashed its original target of £5,000 and currently stands at £7,700.
But the mum wants to get to a figure of £10k so she can make the trip as unforgettable as she possibly can.
Any money leftover will go to supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.
Despite her terminal cancer, Gilly doesn’t let her symptoms beat her.
Though she had to give up her job working in a school due to the unbearable pain, Gilly goes in to Wimborne twice a week to volunteer.
Other days though, are often a wipe-out.
‘I have good days and bad days,’ explains Gilly. ‘Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed because I’m taking chemo tablets every single day, twice a day. That comes with all the side effects too.
‘But I love being around the kids and I volunteer because I want to give back because everyone has been so amazing. I couldn't have asked for more really.’
Optimistic, Gilly finds light in her diagnosis as it means she’s taking on every opportunity she gets to fulfil her dreams before she dies.
‘I'm really positive. I see this as a blessing because somebody who goes out there and has a heart attack and dies won't have the opportunity to do all this, have this amazing holiday and say the things to people you've always wanted to say and be the best version of yourself.’
‘We're all human and we can say mean things to people. Now I think twice about everything I say and do because I want to leave this earth with people knowing a better version of me. I don't take things for granted anymore.’ A second fundraiser has also been set up for Gilly and her family by a friend called ’Beautiful Gilly’s bucket list’ – which will help the family enjoy quality time together while ticking off special experiences. So far, more than £2,000 has been raised by supporters.